Elijah Lewis (left) and Bo John Armand (right) are pictured here on each a side of the Tee Cotton Bowl Trophy as they sit on the field turf of the New Orleans Saints indoor practice facility in Metairie. The Ville Platte High School Bulldogs and the Sacred Heart Trojans were able to practice on the field in preparation for Tee Cotton Bowl XV which is set for August 31 at Soileau-Landry Field. (Gazette photo by Tony Marks)
Stepping up their game
The love of football flows through the veins of people in Louisiana much like the muddy bayou water flows through the countryside. This infatuation with pigskin begins on Friday nights under the high school lights and is solidified on Sunday afternoons as the Black and Gold goes marching in.
These two aspects of the game came together Thursday as the football teams from both Ville Platte high schools got the opportunity to practice in the New Orleans Saints indoor facility in Metairie. All of it was made possible with the winning of a raffle.
“Not many high school teams come here,” said Tee-Cotton Bowl founder and physical therapist Tim Fontenot. “In fact, we’re the only ones, and we actually won a raffle to come here.”
The raffle that Fontenot won was for 150 elementary aged children to practice in the Saints indoor facility. As he explained; though, an exception was made for the Tee Cotton Bowl.
“I went and asked how about high school teams, and I showed them what the Tee Cotton Bowl stood for and how the kids get along and give effort,” he explained. “They decided to make the exception that we were the ones to come.”
“This is a great thing for the kids to come here,” he continued. “Some kids never leave Evangeline Parish. This is their first time out. To come and practice in a facility like this is great, and it’s a bonding experience. It’s a little cherry on top of the ice cream. It’s a cherry on top for playing well, for playing with sportsmanship, and for playing with respect for their community.”
Ville Platte Bulldog head coach Jorie Randle called the day “a good experience” for his squad. “It’s summertime and a good time to get out the country and visit the city for a little bit,” he said. “This is a wowing experience in itself. For some of our kids, this is their first time out of Ville Platte. We have a couple Saints fans on the team, so it’s a great experience.”
He continued, “We’re happy to be here, and we’re happy that the Saints and the organization could open the doors for us.”
One of Randle’s players who made the most of the indoor practice was senior defensive tackle and offensive guard Travian Ardoin. “It’s a really good experience knowing that we’re two teams from a little city like Ville Platte,” he said. “This is my second time being in an indoor facility and my first time being in this one. I really loved it.”
For the team across the tracks, Thursday was equally important. “This is very important for the community,” said Sacred Heart Trojan head coach Josh Harper. “It’s important to get these schools together. We had the renewal of the Tee Cotton Bowl last year, and I thought it was a great turnout and a great game. The kids showed a lot of character and discipline toward each other.”
He continued, “Just getting out here is big and to let them come have some fun and see the facilities. A lot of the kids probably have never been to New Orleans or gotten to experience this. I just love being here. It’s great for the kids and great for both schools.”
One of Harper’s players for whom Thursday was his first trip to New Orleans was freshman lineman and tackle Aidan Soileau. Soileau and the rest of the players from both teams began their time in New Orleans by walking around the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Ardoin said “it was pretty cool” to see the home of the Saints. Upon leaving the Superdome, the convoy parked in the Zephyr Field parking lot before it was time to go over to the indoor practice facility next door. According to Soileau, the indoor practice facility was “different because it’s not a little field, and it’s a giant gym.”
Returning Trojan quarterback Wesley Launey stated that Thursday was big for him even though he had been to New Orleans and the Superdome previously for the LHSAA football state championships.
“This is unlike anything we’ve ever done,” he expressed. “Coming from a 1A school, this is something different to see such a nice facility, and to be able to do this is awesome because we just don’t expect something like this coming from our background.”
“Growing up we always wanted to go watch the Tee Cotton Bowl,” he added. “It was the game of the season to watch. It’s just awesome how we can come together as two schools from across the tracks in competitiveness and sportsmanship. It’s something unique that you don’t usually see between two rival schools.”
The practice session was interrupted for the players and coaches to hear from Saints personnel on proper concussion recognition, proper hydration, and proper blocking techniques such as the top of the spear method.
Ardoin said, “I learned how it’s easy to get a concussion, and I learned how to stay hydrated because, if not, you could be in the hospital.”
Randle said that the instruction allowed the kids to “get the bigger picture and to learn some good tidbits and facts about football.” He added, “It just seems like people are trying to make football in general the bad guy. So, it’s good to come here and learn some good techniques to protect ourselves.”
For Harper, Thursday’s practice was a lot like the game itself. “We’re a predominately white school, and they’re a predominately black school. The kids get along and have always gotten along. The city embraces it, and the kids embrace the game.”
“Going into the game last year, there was no trash talking,” he continued. “It was just a well played game with kids helping each other off of the ground. It’s just a great experience for the kids, and it’s always good to have a rivalry that the kids look forward to. Knowing that they got Ville Platte in Week 1 in the Tee Cotton Bowl makes it easy to get them motivated.”
This year’s Tee Cotton Bowl, scheduled for August 31, is making its first trip back to Sacred Heart’s Soileau-Landry Field since the game’s return last season. Fontenot explained that the theme for this year is The Greatest Show in High School Football. “We’re going to have a full-sized African elephant and a parade,” he stated. “Now, you have to come to the game to see whether it’s alive or not or if I’m telling the truth. We’ll have alpacas that will be at the game, and a petting zoo, and acrobats.”
He continued, “The main event of the three-ring circus is the game, and the game is played like nobody else plays it in high school football. It’s played with respect. It’s played with effort. It’s played with sportsmanship. I feel that we’re one of the icons of high school football and in all of football.”
Both coaches expressed that Thursday’s practice should springboard their respective clubs to accomplishing their goals for the season.
“It’s been a while since we hosted a second round playoff game,” Randle said. “We got eliminated the past three years in the first round. That’s probably our biggest goal on the board right now.”
“Our goal this year is to build off of last year,” Harper expressed. “Last year, we got to host a playoff game. That was big for the school, and we hope to return to host another game and make it further. We got beat out by Ouachita Christian last year, so a goal this year is to do better than we did last year and to go further in the playoffs.”
While the indoor practice was important for the coaches to get their players into better game shape, it was important to Fontenot for bringing the city together. “This means a lot to me and a lot to the City of Ville Platte,” he commented. “These kids never get the chance to play in something like this. To get to come here and practice in this facility is an event they’ll remember for the rest of their lives. I thank God for this chance to come here, and I think we’ll make the most of it.”
Fontenot concluded, “This is one small step for man and one large step for a Ville Plattian to come and play over here. This is like going to the moon.”